Life-saving Ski Patroller can thank his comrades for being alive today
Tod Elston has worked as a Ski Patrol member for 48 years, tending to “wrecks” – injured skiers.When he needed life-saving medical attention in December, he couldn’t have picked a better place than at the Ski Patrol first-aid building at Sunlight Mountain Resort.There, comrades with whom he had helped provide aid to countless skiers came to his own aid when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.”I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the guys up there,” Elston said, reminiscing about his ordeal this week.Elston, 80, sat by the warmth of his wood-burning stove, enjoying the expansive living-room view of the Four-Mile Creek Valley below his home at Oak Meadows. The thin-framed man appreciates a warm house; his fingers have little circulation after years of exposing his hands to bitter cold carrying out his Ski Patrol duties.He’s also still recovering from his heart attack, but looks forward to the day when he can put his skis on again.”I’ll be back, I’ll be back,” he said.Then he looked to his wife, Corrine, who’s had to police his activities while he regains his strength.
“He will,” she consented. “He just has to see a heart doctor in the next month and then he’ll be OK.”Elston wasn’t sure he’d even survive, much less ski again, when his heart attack struck. But as he looks back, it seems to him as if everything fell into place to ensure his survival.”Everything just went click, click, click, like I wasn’t supposed to die. There were always people there,” he said.When his own problems struck, Elston was in the middle of helping a skier with some lower back pain, which was lucky for him. Because there had been a rescue call, other Ski Patrol members had come to where Elston was stationed at the first-aid building, along with a paramedic who happened to be undergoing Ski Patrol training.Elston, who had suffered two far more minor heart attacks years ago, was helping load the skier on a gurney when he started feeling ill.”I got up and sat in a chair and one of the guys said, ‘Tod, what’s wrong with you? You’re white as a sheet.’ I said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ He said, ‘Come on, lie on the gurney.’ I stood up and went down.”Strangely enough, that same day someone else had asked Elston to check up on the defibrillator kept at the first-aid building. Before the day was over, it was being put to use on him.The Ski Patrol workers hooked up an intravenous line to Elston and got him on oxygen, and an ambulance arrived to take him on what turned out to be a slow ride to Valley View Hospital, thanks to icy conditions on Four-Mile Road.Just after his arrival at Valley View, Elston’s heart stopped. But the paramedic who had begun working on him at Sunlight was there to administer CPR, and Elston was revived.
Eventually, he was driven to Rifle, and airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he stayed three days. While there, he had a stent inserted in his heart through an artery in his leg.Elston remembers having a strange sense of calm and acceptance at the time of his heart attack. While being treated at Sunlight, he wasn’t fearful, but just relaxed while his peers tended to him.”If I had died at Valley View, it would have been beautiful; there was no pain. I wasn’t afraid, I just accepted what was going to happen. It was just like, well, this is all right,” he said.But his body wasn’t ready to die, and his rescuers weren’t ready to let him go. He particularly appreciates the efforts of his Ski Patrol peers.”The thing is, I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the guys up there,” he said.Joe Llewellyn, a longtime Ski Patrol member at Sunlight, said Elston had trained thousands of people over his career. Elston has worked at Sunlight more than 30 years, and was the professional patrol director for 11 years. In Wisconsin, he was in charge of 26 patrols in five states. All of that came back to him when other Ski Patrol members helped save his life, Llewellyn said.The experience of being a victim rather than a rescuer didn’t give Elston a new appreciation for Ski Patrol members. “I always had an appreciation. They’re great people. I was real lucky,” he said.This wasn’t the first time other Ski Patrol members have come to Elston’s aid. Tod’s Ride, in the Sunlight Extreme area, got its name after Elston survived an avalanche there while doing avalanche control work more than 20 years ago. Elston suffered three broken ribs, but his avalanche shovel protected his rib cage and probably kept him from being crushed to death when he was rammed into trees. When his wild ride was over, he had managed to “swim” to the surface but was buried up to his chest, and another Ski Patrol member helped him get free of the slide.Elston also once suffered serious facial injuries when he caught air and landed in a heap on what is now called Tod’s Knob on the Ute run.
Over the years, Elston has tended to any number of bad injuries suffered by other skiers. Saving the life of a skier who suffered head injuries in 1962 earned him a Purple Merit Star from the National Ski Patrol.”When you really get a bad one and you get them down to the hospital and they’re all right, you feel good,” Elston said.Elston was a ski racer for six years and has been known to beat far younger skiers racing down Sunlight’s slopes. He worked at a resort in Wisconsin while making a living in refrigeration, heating and cooling in Chicago. He had friends in the Glenwood area, began coming here and decided to move here.His long tenure of service locally led to him being named the Outstanding Ski Patroller at Sunlight in 1992, and being honored as a Rocky Mountain Division Patroller of the Year. He also is the recipient of the only lifetime ski pass ever handed out by Sunlight.A father of two, grandfather of six and great-grandfather of four, Elston keeps busy around the house and enjoys an occasional trip to Las Vegas. But he’s not ready to give up skiing, and advises others to continue doing what they love as long as their bodies will let them.”Don’t quit skiing, don’t quit doing what you want to do when you get older. You can still get out there,” he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.